Resource image from a computer processor.CHRISTIAN LAGEREK / SCIENCE PHOTO / . / Science Photo Libra

Integrated photonics is a technology that promises to revolutionize 5G communication, data centers, artificial intelligence systems, autonomous driving, or quantum computing. But today, except in data centers, they practically only include it in their technological giants like Google, Intel, Facebook or Huawei and large research centers. The high expense involved in creating circuits of this type and the long development times leave out small and medium-sized companies and researchers with few resources. The Spanish iPronics, which has just been selected by the scientific magazine Nature and the German multinational Merck as one of the best technological spin-offs in the world, intends to change it.

The objective of this company, which was born in 2019 from the Polytechnic University of Valencia (that’s why it is called a spin-off), is to democratize the use of photonic technology. For this, it has manufactured a programmable photonic processor that can be configured for different applications. In this way, development times are reduced to just three weeks and the associated costs are reduced due to the possibility of increasing the manufacturing volume.

What exactly is photonics and how is it different from electronics? Photonics uses light and its properties to process, modify, create and detect signals at very high speed. Daniel Pérez, Telecommunications and CTO engineer and cofounder of iPronics, explains that “the great difference between photonics and electronics lies in fundamental physics”: “Electronics what it does is use the properties of electrons. In the case of photonics, we use photons. “

“There are people who say that photonics comes to compete with electronics. We say it comes to complement it, “says Pérez. One of the main attractions of photonics, according to its defenders, is the possibility of getting there where electronics cannot. The engineer refers to Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors that fit inside a chip doubles every two years: “Until now, all manufacturers have kept up with that law and have been forced to comply with it. However, it is being seen that electronics are beginning to find limitations in certain applications. For example, graphics cards have begun to be used for neural network training for machine learning or machine learning systems, and electronics is starting to top there. ”

Within this technology, integrated photonics stands out, which consists of generating and controlling photons within a circuit. Photonic chips are integrated circuits similar to those found in integrated electronics in phones, computers or cars, but instead of using electricity (electrons) they use optical signals (light).

Pérez explains that integrated photonic circuits are over 30 years old and are the ones that today make, for example, that millions of users can connect to Facebook. The data centers of this company and many others are integrating photonic technology, according to account. “The integrated photonics market surpassed 1,000 million US dollars in 2020 and, according to different market studies, a compound growth rate of between 20% and 26% is estimated,” says Pérez. Still, this technology today “is hidden · in data centers, optical communication networks and very specific circuits.

Three years of development and half a million euros

But if it is a mature technology that has shown in research its potential in the field of health, defense or telecommunications, why not use it in a massive way? “For an SME, a university center or a company with few financial kidneys, facing the design of a circuit of this type implies an expense that will never be less than half a million euros,” says Pérez. To this amount is added the development time, which “is usually between one and three years”: “Nobody in their right mind intends to design a device that has so many economic risks so that when they want to reach the market, three years have really passed “

That’s where iPronics members, who have spent more than six years researching programmable photonics, seek to revolutionize the industry. So far the chips on the market have been designed for a specific purpose. But the circuit created by this spin-off has a generic purpose and is designed so that a user can program whatever they want without having to have a degree in physics or telecommunications.

With this programmable chip, the development time would be “100 times faster”, according to Pérez, who estimates that the process would take about three weeks. Compared to the more than half a million euros that it normally takes to manufacture this type of system, the first estimates from iPronics suggest that the reconfigurable photonic processor with all the equipment will cost around 15,000 euros. His research indicates that the extra costs will be reduced in five or 10 years to about 1,500 euros. “We are going to have a computer that will allow us to configure the chip after it has been manufactured. So we are doing that instead of waiting three years to have an integrated photonic circuit, we can configure and design it in less than three weeks. You can imagine the scientific acceleration that this can cause ”, he adds.

The iPronics device is still under development. The spin-off is working on a pre-commercial version that it will distribute in 2021 to customers who have sued it for testing. Among them, for now, there are technology giants, research centers and universities around the world. Companies and researchers who work mainly in artificial intelligence and process with neuromorphic networks (systems that emulate the activity of the human brain to perform its calculations), according to Pérez, who does not offer the names of the companies interested for reasons of confidentiality.

iPronics hopes to start marketing it in 2022. The engineer predicts that this technology will be applied to more heterogeneous fields and “in four or five years we will begin to see it more widely in the market.” If these circuits can finally be used for different applications, something similar could happen to what has happened with electronics: “When it started in the 70s, they were circuits that only served one thing, it cost a lot of money to make them and it was very risky to start manufacturing them. ” But years later, microprocessors and FPGAs arrived — electronic chips that can be configured for different applications and are in televisions, cars, or smart homes. “It has been that leap to the generic that has made electronics change our lives. We anticipate a similar change in photonics, “he concludes.